Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of ‘Interstellar’

Was really looking forward to this one, and just a tiny bit disappointed; not entirely sure it’s OK to say so, since so many others have such strong opinions, and lots of people really like it.
It’s visually arresting, though not as much so as other Nolan films. The audio was murky, though this might be my declining ears (I find myself saying that more and more) or even the crappy sound system at Muswell Hill Odeon. Whatever the reason, I missed some of the dialogue, though this didn’t seem to matter all that much. It’s a film of images and themes. The images are striking enough, and they function as visual cues to call up reserves of associations and feelings.

The dust bowl is one. The film begins with documentary-style talking heads, people talking about the wind-blown dust. Actually, they are real documentary talking heads, from another film about the 1930s dust bowl. There are shots of American climate refugees who look just like the Oakies of the 1930s, down to the trucks – explained by the fact that the climate crisis, and a population crash, means that everyone is making do with retro technology.

And maybe it’s just me, but I thought that the space suits – particularly the helmets – looked more like the ones worn by Soviet cosmonauts than American astronauts. That wouldn’t fit with the overall story line, which is about the ultimate triumph of the American way of life – Old Glory on the surface of planets in other galaxies – but it does help to give the space effort a sort of battered retro look.

Another visual cue is the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, to which this has sometimes been compared. I saw 2001 when it was already old, and I don’t have the feeling of reverence for it that some people seem to have. I can still recognise the scenes which evoke the earlier film, though – some of the shots of the ring-shaped array of docked spacecraft, the sequence when they pass through the wormhole – and the overall theme of humans being curated by a benevolent external intelligence.

It’s more about the themes than anything else. The plot and the narrative drags a bit. The dialogue is not important, and the characters are mainly uninteresting – apart from Matt Damon’s character. But there really are lots of big themes. Ecological crisis, climate change, and future food shortages. The relationships between parents and children, and what each owes to the other. The role of science and technology. General and special relativity, and the way that the physics of space travel would impact on the relations between the generations.

Others have commented on the underlying politics of the film – the message that it doesn’t entirely matter that we’ve fucked up the planet, because science and technology will be able to build us an escape route to other worlds, and that anyone who says we need to fix this planet because it’s the only one we have is a misguided liberal – and a dishonest conspiracy nut too, prepared to spread the lie that the moon landings were faked if it serves a purpose. 

Review of Northern Soul

I've never been a member of a music-based subculture, so I don’t know what it feels to define oneself as a member of an in-group based on clothes and music. That’s what this film is about, though. The main character is a slightly geeky, introverted boy whose parents bully him into trying the local youth club, and who – by taking sides in a fight on the spur of the moment – finds himself fallen in among soul boys. He becomes an enthusiastic participant and thereby finds shape and meaning for his life. There are lots of amphetamines, some of them dodgy.

The film is dark and dirty-looking, and the sound is sometimes a bit muffled – funny for a film about music. There is no sense that the palaces of Northern Soul were wonderlands for the people who went to them; they look dismal. The dancing about which so much has been said is energetic but graceless and not at all beautiful. It’s a sort of male competitive display, the boys dancing to impress each other. They certainly don’t seem very interested in the girls, who bob up and down discreetly in the background.

It did remind me a bit about how awful it was being a teenager in the 1970s, even though my suburban London Grammar School wasn’t even close to this world. Fountain pens and ink bottles, uncomfortable school uniforms, the underlying threat of violence between boys, the sarcastic teachers, the horrible dangerous cars…

Funny to recall a time when any kind of recorded music was a rare and precious commodity that you had to seek out, and where finding and owning the right recordings was worth both money and cudos. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'

A comedy thriller – not always a good hybrid, but this one works well. Robert Downey Jnr is good as the rather hapless recent arrival in Hollywood who stumbles into a complex plot involving incest, swapped bodies, frame-ups and murder, while failing to get it together with his teenage unrequited love. A few ‘alienation of the audience’ devices as RDJ speaks directly to camera, pauses the action and so on, which also work quite well. The detective to whom RDJ is assigned to ‘learn about the detective business’ for his putative movie role is gay, played by Val Wilmer, and I thought the gay jokes were sympathetic, not nasty, and quite funny; not really for me to say, though.

Is it of any consequence that I had seen it before and forgotten it? I don't think so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review of 'Wristcutters'

A strange but not unenjoyable film set in an afterlife peopled entirely by suicides. Visually striking, apart from the naff 'miracles', in the way it evokes decay and dereliction. An interesting premise, not too badly done, it doesn't worry too much about plot mechanics or continuity - well, they're all dead, aren't they? Tom Waits is in it, so it can't be all bad. Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello, was originally supposed to play the role

The poster and DVD cover art are a bit misleading, in that they suggest it's lighter than it really is.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of 'Detachment'

A really good film about a supply teacher - how often do you get to write that? I was expecting a conventional 'inspiring teacher' or even 'cynical bad teacher' film, but this was much, much better. So much insight into the pain and humiliation of ordinary life, and the ways that people armour themselves against it. Some good acting (including Lucy Liu playing against type as a burnt-out school counsellor), really interesting camera-work, haunting incidental music. Well worth watching.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review of Frankenweenie

I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. Sometimes Tim Burton's stuff is less than the sum of its parts. This was comic horror, a spoof on school movies and horror that worked quite well. I noticed the cinematic references to the original Frankenstein movie, and one or two to Godzilla; I've never seen 'Pet Sematery' but I suspect there were more references there, and others that I just missed. The science teacher who looked like Vincent Price was great (was his car, which was largely out of shot, a Trabant?), and I liked the way that the town meeting was so stupidly anti-science - a reversal of the original Frankenstein story, which is itself anti-science. And science mainly saves the day at the end, some of which is actually a bit scary for comic horror spoof.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review of 'The Phantom' - really, really, don't bother with this

Tosh, and not even likeable tosh. I know it's supposed to be a comic, but does it have to be so dull? Sort of sub-Indiana Jones, but with a character so near-omnipotent, and so devoid of complexity of any sort, as to rid the film of almost all interest and suspense. Really, compared to The Phantom Indiana Jones is Hamlet. Oh, and it's casually racist in a sort of TinTin way, with a fictional 'jungle' setting that doesn't correspond to anywhere in particular though it has a British garrison and native servants in turbans.

The dullness is ameliorated somewhat by a quite young (27) Catherine Zeta-Jones as a beautiful but sinister baddie in what appears to be black silk jumpsuit, but she turns good about two thirds through, so that ruins that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review of ‘Still the Enemy Within’

This well-made, insightful, thoughtful documentary about the 1984-5 miners’ strike in the UK was painful to watch, because it’s impossible to forget that the story ends with a bitter defeat. Subsequent events have demonstrated that the miners’ militant leadership were absolutely correct in their assessment of what the government had planned for the industry and the communities of people who worked in it. The extent to which the government was prepared to go in subverting the very rule of law which it accused the miners of seeking to undermine has also become clearer, as has the complicity of the right-wing media in propagating utterly false smears about the miners’ union and their leaders.

That the miners were proved right, and the government shown to be nasty, doesn't make it any easier to watch. The whole awful 1980s experience came flooding back – the Wapping dispute, Rate Capping, the Falklands War triumphalism, the 1987 election, Section 28…I could literally taste it all. Much of it bound up with a particularly windy corner of Swiss Cottage where we did collections and street stalls. For me it was slightly worse because the first interviewee, to whom the film keeps returning, came from Frickley Colliery, the pit which adoped by my then constituency Labour Party, Hampstead and Highgate.

The film attempts to end with a positive note, showing some of its interviewees marching on an ant-cuts demo, with a sort of ‘the struggle goes on’ message. But this obscures rather than clarifies. In the 1980s the labour movement was actually confronting the state and its masters; traipsing through the streets on a protest march is not the same thing at all. Somehow this made it worse.

This is a great film, and anyone interested in progressive politics should watch it, but unlike "Pride"there aren't many laughs or a happy, uplifting ending. This is a lesson in defeat, the kind that you can see coming but are powerless to prevent. As I left two women behind me, who might have been comrades from that time, were talking about the possibility of a film about the Wapping dispute. A good idea, but can I be spared having to watch it?